Bengals defense right at home in 'Jungle'

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
9:00
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Wallace Gilberry has tried to warn his friends on opposing teams about stepping inside Paul Brown Stadium.

He's not sure if they have been listening.

"Look, I tell everybody it's hard to win in 'The Jungle,'" the Cincinnati Bengals defensive end said, referring to his stadium's nickname. "It's hard to win because we're like a pack of lions. If you watch the Discovery Channel long enough, you know how lions hunt.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Dunlap (left) and Vontaze Burfict celebrate one of four turnovers the Bengals forced on Sunday.
"With us, you got that one lead lion and you never know who that lead lion could be. It could be Vontaze Burfict. It could be myself, Mike [Johnson], Carlos [Dunlap], Reggie [Nelson], Vinny Rey. You don't know who that lead lion is."

In Sunday's 42-14 blasting of the Minnesota Vikings, several different Bengals defenders took lead roles as they devoured another opponent at home. Burfict led the way in tackles yet again. Dunlap recovered a timely fumble that swung the game's momentum early. Nelson helped force that clutch third-down turnover. Rey returned an interception for a touchdown.

On a day in which the Bengals won the AFC North title, earned a third consecutive postseason berth and kept alive their undefeated home record, The Jungle was alive.

"We knew we had to come out and show them that we meant business from the first snap," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We showed them that, when you come to The Jungle, don't expect to win."

Before this story continues, here's a matter of zoological housekeeping.

Bengals, of course, are tigers. While both tigers and lions share a common ancestor, they have a number of markedly different characteristics. Chief among those differences is the fact tigers mostly hunt alone, while lions are more communal in the stalking of prey.

Now back to football.

The biggest factor behind Cincinnati's defensive success Sunday stemmed from its play on third down. Nine times Minnesota reached a third-down scenario and nine times it was kept from getting a first down.

"We always want to keep them below 25 percent," Dunlap said.

They certainly did that Sunday. But maybe that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. Ahead of this weekend's game, the Bengals were allowing opposing offenses to convert on just 25 percent of the third downs this season at home. Only the Detroit Lions' defense -- yes, the football team, not the actual mammal -- had a better home third-down percentage (23.8 percent) before the week began.

That Bengals home figure is in stark contrast to the 41.3 conversion rating the defense gives up on third down while on the road. For that reason, the question begs to be asked: Why are they so much better at home than on the road while defending the third down?

"The crowd's loud," Rey said.

Every Bengal who was asked Sunday about the defense's third-down success pointed to the same thing. The atmosphere they and their home fans have created is an intimidating one, the Bengals feel. Players cite confusion at the line of scrimmage for opposing offenses and their own ability to anticipate snap counts because of the crowd's volume as deeper reasons for the success.

Even offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth has seen from the sideline just how bewildering playing offense as a visitor at Paul Brown Stadium can be.

"Home games are more about the defense in the sense that a home game really gives the opportunity for the crowd to be loud and to create an atmosphere that's tough for the offense to execute," Whitworth said. "When they're able to do that, it gives us lots of opportunities [on offense] to get points. Then you can have a drive or two when you stall, but you know you're going to get another chance because that crowd and that defense gives you the ball back."

For further evidence of how well the Bengals have done at home defensively this season, consider the following. Entering Sunday's games, their home statistics ranked in the top 10 in yards per game, yards per play, rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, interceptions per passing attempt, first downs per game, third-down conversion percentage, fourth-down conversion percentage, red zone efficiency, goal-to-go efficiency and points allowed per game. They also ranked first in QBR, defensive points scored per game and net yards per passing attempt.

The Bengals close their schedule next weekend with Baltimore, but hope to host one or more postseason games next month. If they do, they are confident the outcomes will be the same for opposing offenses.

Why?

"It's The Jungle, man," Gilberry said.

Coley Harvey

ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter

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